Born on June 19, 1861, José Rizal was from an upper-class Filipino family. His mother, Teodora Alonso, a highly educated woman, exerted a powerful influence on his intellectual development. He would grow up to be a brilliant polymath, doctor, fencer, essayist, and novelist, among other things.
By the late nineteenth century, the Spanish empire was in irreversible decline. Spain had ruled the islands since 1565, except for a brief hiatus when the British occupied them in 1762. The colonial government was unresponsive and often cruel, with the religious establishment wielding as much power as the state. Clerical abuses, European ideas of liberalism, and growing international trade fueled a burgeoning national consciousness. For Rizal and his generation, the 1872 Cavite Mutiny, in which three native priests were accused of treason and publicly executed, provided both inspiration and a cautionary tale.
Educated at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila and the Dominican University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Rizal left for Spain in 1882, where he studied medicine and the liberal arts, with further studies in Paris and Heidelberg. The charismatic Rizal quickly became a leading light of the Propaganda Movement—Filipino expatriates advocating, through its newspaper, La Solidaridad, various reforms such as the integration of the Philippines as a province of Spain, representation in the Cortes (the Spanish parliament), the Filipinization of the clergy, and equality of Filipinos and Spaniards before the law. To Rizal, the main impediment to reform lay not so much with the civil government but with the reactionary and powerful Franciscan, Augustinian, and Dominican friars, who constituted a state within a state.
In 1887, he published his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, written in Spanish, a searing indictment of friar abuse as well as of colonial rule’s shortcomings. That same year, he returned to Manila, where the Noli had been banned and its author now hated intensely by the friars. In 1888, he went to Europe once more, and there wrote the sequel, El Filibusterismo (The Subversive), published in 1891. In addition, he annotated an edition of Antonio Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, showing that the Philippines had had a long history before the advent of the Spaniards. Rizal returned to Manila in 1892 and founded a reform society, La Liga Filipina, before being exiled to Dapitan, in Mindanao, Southern Philippines. There he devoted himself to scientific research and public works. Well-known as an ophthalmologist, he was visited by an English patient, accompanied by his ward, Josephine Bracken, who would be his last and most serious romantic involvement.
In August of 1896, the Katipunan, a nationalist secret society, launched the revolution against Spain. Its leaders venerated Rizal and tried to persuade him to their cause. He refused, convinced that the time was not yet ripe for armed struggle. In the meantime, he volunteered to serve as a doctor with the Spanish forces fighting against Cuban revolutionaries. En route, Rizal was arrested and subjected to a mock trial in Manila by the authorities although he had nothing to do with the revolution. Found guilty, he was, at the age of thirty-five, shot at dawn on December 30, 1896. On the eve of his execution, Rizal penned Mi Ultimo Adios (“My Last Farewell”), considered a masterpiece of nineteenth-century Spanish verse.
Rizal’s martyrdom only intensified the ultimately successful fight for independence from Spain. Because of his role in shaping his country’s destiny, José Rizal is often described as the “First Filipino” and has since served as an inspiration to countless nationalists and intellectuals.